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More On Kentucky's Downside

I have received a number of Twitter questions asking how to interpret the Best Case and Worst Case Scenarios in my projections. If you think of a normal bell curve, while most of the mass is in the middle, the tails can stretch out for some distance. I don’t think there is much value in trying to present the full tail for each team when projecting the season. If I reported the true outliers for every team, every team’s range would be ridiculously large. I tried to settle on cut-offs that communicate the relative riskiness of teams.

The real question is how often teams fall within my Best Case/Worst Case range. I have an idea based on past seasons, but since I used those seasons to fit the model, I’m not quite willing to make a definitive statement on that question yet. For now, let me present a couple of outliers from last year.

- What would my new simulation model have projected for Kentucky and Michigan for 2012-2013?

Kentucky 2012-13

Median Simulation : 16th

Best Case: 4th

Worst Case: 43rd

While most of us fell in love with the upside for Kentucky’s starting lineup last year, what we were not accounting for was the fact that Kentucky had very little depth. If Kentucky’s starters were injured or struggled, the downside simulations were quite weak. In fact, based on the number of available at-large bids, Kentucky’s worst case scenario was that of a borderline NCAA/NIT team last year.

And as we saw, the worst case scenario came to fruition. According to Sagarin’s margin-of-victory-based “Predictor”, Kentucky finished 38th last season. According to Ken Pomeroy’s old MOV formula, Kentucky finished 48th. And according to Ken Pomeroy’s new capped MOV formula, Kentucky finished 67th last season.

Michigan 2012-13

Median Simulation: 23rd

Best Case: 6th

Worst Case: 57th

As with Kentucky, Michigan had a relatively large range for a Top 25 team. And the reason for those large ranges is because both teams were relying a ton on freshmen last year. The performance of freshmen is extremely unpredictable. In the end, Michigan finished above my best case scenario at fourth or fifth depending on your preferred MOV system.

While these finishes were just outside my projected range, I am comfortable with both of these. That is because I believe in both cases those were true outlier seasons, far out in the tail.

Despite having what the experts labeled as the 8th-12th best recruiting class in the country, Michigan’s freshmen class was by far the most productive in the country last year. To have freshman Nik Stauskas come in and make 80 threes, to have Mitch McGary play like a superstar in the NCAA tournament, and to have players like Spike Albrecht come out of nowhere and play mistake-free basketball was incredible.

Meanwhile, for Kentucky, just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. From the injury to Nerlens Noel, to the disappointing play of a highly touted transfer PG, to John Calipari’s rare failure to get the Wildcats to buy-in on defense, everything broke the wrong way.

If these are the type of seasons that fall just outside my projected range, I feel fairly confident in the accuracy of my system.

- What does this mean for 2013-2014?

While I am not guaranteeing that Kentucky will finish in the Top 13 this year, my model is essentially saying that this is extremely likely.

Kentucky simply has too much depth for things to completely fall apart this year. As I noted last week, Julius Randle could be a massive underachiever and Will-Cauley Stein could get hurt, and Kentucky would not miss a beat. The only possible weakness on the Wildcats is the lack of depth at the guard positions.

But with a downside of 13th this year instead of 43rd last year, Kentucky fans can be confident that even if things go wrong, the team will still be relevant in March.

- Didn’t I have Michigan rated lower than 23rd in last year’s preseason projections?

Yes, absolutely. Michigan is a huge reason that I added the simulation to the model. What I wanted to be able to do was more effectively emphasize the importance of star players. It is much easier for the winner of a competition to be a role player. And because Michigan had Trey Burke (and to a lesser extent Tim Hardaway), they already had their stars last year. They only had to find role players to fill in around them. I agree that my old model was too pessimistic, and Michigan is a large reason I added a simulation to my model this year.

This also explains why Michigan’s upside remains extremely strong this year. Again, Michigan is going to be relying a lot on unproven players. But with Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson leading the way, if this year’s guards click, the upside for Michigan remains that of a Top 5 team. (The Wolverines also needs McGary to get over his lingering back issues.)

But the real importance of the simulation is the earlier note about depth. This year Maryland, Alabama, NC State, Temple and Vanderbilt have very short benches. Those teams might have competitive rotations, but the lack of scholarship players is a risk. Do not be surprised if injuries derail the season for at least one of these teams.

A Case For Holiday Tournaments Over Bowl Games

With the start of college football right around the corner, some fans may be setting aside some extra cash for a bowl week vacation. But as fun as a trip to the Sun Belt can be in January, I don’t think enough sports’ fans appreciate college basketball’s holiday tournaments.

Where else in sports can you see your team compete three times in four days (regardless of whether they win or lose), sit within 20 rows of the court at all times, make the player’s parents smile by joining the small cheering section, and enjoy all the perks of a tropical vacation?

Of course, for some fans the choice of a bowl vacation or holiday tournament may depend on the quality of the teams. And while I’m no expert on the upcoming college football season, now that the preseason football rankings have been released I can make my case. For many teams, the holiday basketball tournament is the better choice.

Arizona – NIT Tipoff, November 29th and 30th 

Pros: While it is fun to see a team integrate new players, this is even more enjoyable when the team is winning. And Arizona should be able to do exactly that. Everyone wants to see freshmen phenoms Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson play against college competition. But watching to see how much of a sophomore year leap Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley have made is equally important. And it will be interesting to see whether transfer PG TJ McConnell’s great stats at Duquesne translate to the Pac-12.

Other Thoughts: Perhaps because of the excitement for those players, I don’t think enough people are raving about guard Nick Johnson. Johnson was a lights out three point shooter, above average passer, solid driver, and outstanding steal artist last season. And as the 22nd ranked player in the 2011 high school class, it isn’t like he has the pedigree of a glue guy. Is it possible for a player to be a star and also be the least exciting reason to watch this team?

Cons: In a normal year, Arizona basketball wins hands down over football. But New York City is a bit of a long flight for only two games, and the NIT bracket is an elimination format. That means if Arizona loses a home game in the first two rounds the Wildcats won’t even make the trip to New York. If it weren’t for that uncertainty, this would be a slam dunk. It also hurts that the football team is receiving a few votes in the preseason polls. If the football team ends up in a quality bowl, this could be a harder decision than in a normal year.

Bottom Line: With only two night games in New York, that’s just more time to see a Broadway show or take in some other evening entertainment. The possibility of Duke vs Arizona at Madison Square Garden is just too good to pass up.

Oklahoma St – Old Spice Classic, November 28th to December 1st

Pros: Last year Trey Burke returned to Michigan and the Wolverines had one of the most exciting seasons in over a decade. The expectations for Oklahoma St. point guard Marcus Smart are just as high.

Other Thoughts: Sometimes it can be hard to pull off crazy dunks against conference opponents. Everyone has seen Markel Brown in conference play, and no Big 12 coach wants to see him slip to the basket for a ridiculous alley-oop. But in a tournament format like this, teams have very little opportunity to scout each other. The chances of Brown sneaking behind the defense for the dunk-of-the-year are high.

Cons: Oklahoma St. might be the favorite in Big 12 football this year. The chance to go to a BCS Bowl might be too good to make plans for a basketball trip.

Bottom Line: Rare is the player who passes up being a Top 5 NBA pick for another year of college. Fans need to enjoy every minute of Smart’s season. And a quick visit to the theme parks in Orlando should get the rest of the family on board.

Iowa – Battle 4 Atlantis, November 28th to 30th

Pros: It has been awhile since Iowa basketball has been more relevant than Iowa football, but that era may be about to begin. The long rebuild under Fran McCaffrey should be paying off this season. Last year’s NIT runner-up squad loses only one quality rotation player and with Top 100 recruits Mike Gessell and Adam Woodbury making the sophomore year leap to stardom, this team seems poised for a return to NCAA tournament glory.

Other Thoughts: Iowa fans may be waiting for an NCAA tournament run, but you want to see a team like Iowa early in the year. They don’t necessarily have the most talent in the country, but their experience might be enough for them to beat some better teams early in the year. Tennessee will be breaking in a new PG, and Kansas will be integrating an entirely new rotation. And even though Iowa might not be more skilled than those teams, early in the year they could surprise a Kansas-level team with their hard work and knowledge of the game.

Cons: Iowa doesn’t have an easy bracket draw. While that should give them the opportunity to pad their NCAA resume, it could also lead to a heart-breaking trip if the team plays poorly.

Bottom Line: For Kansas fans the trip to the Bahamas is a no brainer. For Iowa fans, the basketball team has been an afterthought in recent years. That is coming to an end.

Baylor – Maui Invitational, November 25th to 27th

Pros: Obviously Isaiah Austin is worth the price of admission. And given all the talent in the 2014 NBA Draft, Austin has every incentive to give 100 percent this season. But I’m equally excited to see whether Ricardo Gathers breaks out as a sophomore, and to see highly ranked freshmen Allerik Freeman and Ishmail Wainwright take the floor.

Other Thoughts: Is the location a pro or con here? Hawaii is unbelievable, but I can’t see myself flying across the ocean, paying Maui’s pricey hotel fees, and then heading into a gym to watch basketball. I’d rather spend the time exploring waterfalls or watching the sunrise at Haleakala.

Cons: Brady Heslip struggled last year, Gary Franklin only posted good shooting numbers last year because he never shot, and while JUCO PG Kenny Fred-Chery is solid, he doesn’t have Pierre Jackson’s credentials. That weakness in the backcourt could keep this team from winning the tournament.

Bottom Line: I seriously doubt Baylor will follow Texas’ lead and lose the opening game to Chaminade. That “bye” should make Baylor the prohibitive favorite. And while Scott Drew often wins the recruiting battles, but loses the X’s and O’s component of the game, that can be muted in these early season events. Scott Drew’s team could be at its best here.

Maryland – Paradise Jam, November 22nd to 25th

Pros: Yes, this is partly about seeing Michigan transfer Evan Smotrycz make an impact with his lights out three point shooting. Yes, this is partly about seeing prized recruit Roddy Peters in action for the first time. But what this is really about is watching a core of six Top 100 athletes take the first steps towards Mark Turgeon’s vision. Maryland has no seniors on the roster this year. And in March of 2015, Maryland fans will want to say they watched this team grow from the beginning.

Other Thoughts: Despite Maryland’s youth, there isn’t a team in this tournament that Maryland can’t beat. Providence is athletic, but equally young. Vanderbilt had a number of key players leave the team this off-season. La Salle must replace leading scorer Ramon Galloway. And these games mean something. Given the depth of the ACC this year, having a few neutral site wins could be the difference between the NCAA and NIT for Maryland.

Cons: Depth is an issue for the Terrapins. As we saw with Shaquille Cleare missing the team’s trip to the Bahamas, a few early injuries or academic problems could make three games in four days problematic.

Bottom Line: It is a bit unfair to compare Maryland basketball and football. Obviously the basketball is always the more attractive draw, but given the youth on this team, I can see a number of people deciding to pass on this year’s team. That is a mistake. The best time to cheer for a team is when the roster is young and your expectations are low. Even with a young roster, Maryland can start to put together an NCAA resume in the Virgin Islands.

Wisconsin – Cancun Challenge, November 26th and 27th

Pros: The Badgers lose a ton of production in its front-court, but the replacements are well worth the price of admission. Sam Dekker is a special athlete who should become a star in Bo Ryan’s system. And Frank Kaminsky was unbelievably efficient (122 ORtg) in limited minutes off the bench last season. The team also welcomes back Josh Gasser from injury. With a strong returning core that includes lights out shooter Ben Brust, watching Wisconsin build chemistry should be extremely fun.

Other Thoughts: With St. Louis and West Virginia in the tournament, Dekker and Kaminsky should be challenged physically. The games may end up being ugly defensive battles, but that also might make for some buzzer beaters in this tournament.

Cons: The Cancun Challenge is only a 4-team bracket down in Cancun, so you only get to see the Badgers twice. The football team is also ranked, so a New Year’s Day Bowl game is definitely a possibility.

Bottom Line: Wisconsin basketball and football is often a tough call. But with head coach Bret Bielema leaving the football team this off-season, it is worth taking a trip and sitting in the front row to fall in love with Dekker’s game.

Alex Len Tables Desire To Be No. 1 Pick To Solidify Long-Term Health

Before Alex Len underwent surgery on his left ankle last week, the Maryland center and his agent contemplated holding off the procedure, trying to play through the stress fracture in pre-draft workouts and pushing for the No. 1 spot in June’s NBA draft. They eventually decided to stabilize Len’s injury and his future.

Teams won’t have the opportunity to watch Len work out now, and that is the part that disappoints him. In the mind of Len’s agent, had the 19-year-old participated in drills – and matchups against other big men – leading up to the draft, Len could have been the No. 1 pick.

“If he had a chance to work out, I truly believe he could have moved up and gone No. 1,” agent Michael Lelchitski told RealGM. “But people have been watching Alex closely for years and they know about his potential – not just next season, but two, three years into the future.”

Len showed tremendous growth in his second season at Maryland and played like the potential No. 1 pick at times. For most prospects, losing the draft process would put a dent in their standing, but scouts have kept an eye on Len ever since he played in the Ukraine, as one NBA executive said at Maryland’s win over Northwestern in late November.

Still, the timing of surgery on Len’s ankle came weeks before a combine that could have separated him from other potential lottery picks. This is a critical time for all prospects, in a draft void of Nerlens Noel’s availability.

Ultimately, Len was wise not to jeopardize his future for a short-term gain. And most of all, he knew he could have challenged his ankle to perform in workouts, but then this stress injury promised to linger and leave him needing surgery anyway.

“That would have put him behind the eight ball,” Lelchitski said.

Len will soon begin light workouts on the court, where he will be monitored closely to ensure that he isn’t overworking the ankle. With surgery, Lelchitski said, Len fortified his complete health for his pro team come training camp. At 7-foot-1, Len has a chance to become a talented NBA center, but he understands he needs to improve his game and strengthen for the pros.

An ankle injury put Len out of workouts, possibly out of the running for the No. 1 pick, but he still will “definitely” sit down to conduct pre-draft interviews with teams, Lelchitski said. Len has been speaking English for just over a year, and yet this will be a chance to sell his character and demeanor to organizations.

“Alex will be all about full disclosure,” Lelchitski said. “This will give these teams a great opportunity to get to know him.”

Alex Len Working To Emulate Fire Of Kevin Garnett

Maryland's Alex Len promises to evolve as the year wears on, and he has tools that simply don’t come natural for seven-footers these days: A soft 14-to-18-foot touch, being a willing post player, running the floor smoothly and, mostly, there is no teaching this size and length.

Is Youth An Excuse?

If you want your team to have a great season, it isn’t enough to simply get better. You have to get better at a faster rate than your rivals. One thing I have said in the past is that teams that play a lot of freshmen have the potential to improve the most.

Comparing The Conferences

The Pac-12 has been suffering through a long dark period. The Big Ten has been dominant (at least in the pre-conference schedule) for the last few years. Should we expect a change this year? Is the Pac-12’s slump over? Is the Big Ten’s boom about to come to an end?

Bubble Edition Of Injury Splits

One of the most important things to look at when examining bubble teams is how they have fared with and without key players.

Top NCAA Coaches Of Past Five Years

There are a lot of complicated ways to evaluate college coaches, but in this edition we look at the coaches with the best per possession numbers over the last five years.

Freshmen Bring Hope

Teams that play a lot of freshmen are the most likely to improve as the season goes on, while those with a lot of experience are more likely to plateau. In this piece, we examine freshmen minutes for every major school in the country.

Bounce Back Candidates

A sudden drop in production can be a pure statistical outlier and a recovery could do wonders for their team's performances this season. We outline a few candidates for the 11-12 college basketball season.

Show Me Something

We single out three players that are on the precipice of becoming stars, but need 'wins' more than 'made buckets'.

12 Compelling Storylines From Exempt Events

Here are 12 under-the-radar reasons to watch the smaller November tournaments of the 11-12 NCAA Basketball season.

College Coaching Series Part 3

Part two showed that Jim Calhoun's teams have been the best in the nation at forcing missed shots over the last 9 years. But which coach has consistently taught the best defensive rebounding?

Surprises And Flops, Part 2

Examining the surprises and flops this season in the Big East, ACC, Big 12 and Atlantic-10.

 

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